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GOD IN MYSPACE: ANSWERING QUESTIONS OF LONELINESS AND I DENTITY KEEPING

IT

REAL

WITH

GOD

Derek Knoke


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© Copyright 2008 – Derek Knoke All rights reserved. This book is protected by the copyright laws of the United States of America. This book may not be copied or reprinted for commercial gain or profit. The use of short quotations or occasional page copying for personal or group study is permitted and encouraged. Permission will be granted upon request. Unless otherwise identified, Scripture quotations are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. Please note that Destiny Image’s publishing style capitalizes certain pronouns in Scripture that refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and may differ from some publishers’ styles. Take note that the name satan and related names are not capitalized. We choose not to acknowledge him, even to the point of violating grammatical rules. DESTINY IMAGE® PUBLISHERS, INC. P.O. Box 310, Shippensburg, PA 17257-0310 “Speaking to the Purposes of God for this Generation and for the Generations to Come.” This book and all other Destiny Image, Revival Press, Mercy Place, Fresh Bread, Destiny Image Fiction, and Treasure House books are available at Christian bookstores and distributors worldwide. For a U.S. bookstore nearest you, call 1-800-722-6774. For more information on foreign distributors, call 717-532-3040. Reach us on the Internet: www.destinyimage.com. ISBN 10: 0-7684-2595-6 ISBN 13: 978-0-7684-2595-6 For Worldwide Distribution, Printed in the U.S.A. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 / 09 08


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Dedication To my wife, Katherine, whose beauty is eternally captivating in its countless forms, and my daughter Caroline, the pride and joy of my heart. May God bless, protect, and keep you both always.


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Acknowledgments It is said, “No man is an island.” Though my name is on the cover it would be a grave mistake to take all of the credit. Many people have helped shaped this work—some quite literally and others in the meals shared, prayers prayed, and Christ-likeness modeled before me throughout my life. First, I thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who has entered into covenant with me and who forever keeps His word. Thank You for blessing me with a wonderful wife, children, and family. Thank You for entrusting me with so much. May I be faithful to everything You desire. Second, I thank my wife, Katherine, for the days upon days of dialogue, personal interest in the work, extensive editing, and prayers. Her intelligence and insight have contributed immensely to my own development as a writer and specifically to this book. She has taught me about authenticity and care. Her heart is bigger and her mind more determined than anyone I know. She is a fantastic partner in ministry and an even better friend and companion. Thank you to my family for their unwavering support in countless areas. Dad and Mom, surely you lived out covenant with me; making untold sacrifices to honor your words to one another, to me, and to your Lord and Savior. Thank you as well to my home church family who repeatedly express support across state borders. A big thank you to those who also read, critiqued, and helped edit this book: Dr. Jackie Johns who is incredibly faithful and insightful; Darien Fox also gave the work a thorough reading—you are a trusted friend and confidant. Thank you as well to Dr. Ayodeji Adewuya for your help and instruction.


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Thank you to my long-time mentors: Dr. Bill George who provided helpful feedback regarding the publishing process and provided an excellent critique of the manuscript itself. Your comments and guidelines will make me a much better writer in the future. Thank you to Lee Claypoole who tangibly displayed how to love others. Thank you to my pastor, Clint Claypoole, for your continued support, grace, and leadership. Thank you for always taking a personal interest. I am grateful to my church family at New Life Worship Center and especially the youth who allow me to seek God with them. Finally, thank you to Ronda Ranalli in the acquisitions department and to the entire staff at Destiny Image for believing in this book and its impact on our youth, families, and churches. Thanks for your help and guidance through the process.


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Endorsements Derek gives unique insight and perspective as he looks into the world of MySpacers. Students communicate to others their hobbies, feelings, likes, and dislikes, all through MySpace. They also tell us some things about themselves that reveal deeper issues. God desires that young people have a place for Him in their life and find in Him all they are looking for. You will find this book to be informative, inspirational, and insightful at the same time. You will not only understand MySpace better but also discover in a new way the very depths of God’s love and His relentless pursuit of each of us. Lee Claypoole President, National Youth Leaders Association and popular youth camp speaker Derek Knoke has issued a thought-provoking call to view and respond to cultural realities in light of the human condition and God’s unfolding plan of redemption. Thanks, Derek, for adding your insights and thoughts to the discussion on teenagers and social networking. Walt Mueller President, Center for Parent/Youth Understanding


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Contents Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13 SECTION I Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4

Relationships: Today’s Great Need . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 Relational Disconnection and Social Networking . . . . 17 Philosophical Chaos: Postmodernism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 Marketing: The Pressure Cooker of Adolescence . . . . 33 The Center of My Space. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43

SECTION II Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8

Covenant and Vulnerability . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49 Holding It Together: Covenant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51 Relational Connection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69 Authenticity: Being Real. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81 Make God the Center. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95

SECTION III Youth Messages: God in MySpace . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109 Youth Talk #1 Accepting God’s Invitation of Friendship . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111 Youth Talk #2 The Influence of God in Your Space . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121 Youth Talk #3 Finding God in Your Space . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131 Youth Talk #4 Pictures of God: Allowing Him to Determine Your Value . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141 SECTION IV

Being Present: Understanding How to Navigate MySpace Safely . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 151 Endnotes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167


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Preface

T

his book is an outgrowth of my personal engagement in youth culture as a youth pastor at my local church. In the summer of 2006, I preached a series of messages entitled, God in MySpace. Upon sharing some of my notes with a friend, he suggested that we share the curriculum with others. In my mind, however, the material would need to be accompanied with a section for youth pastors as they talked with inquisitive parents. It would be the rationale that would guide our messages around the theme of social networking. And while it began as another “talk� or message for parents, what you hold in your hands is what it has become. The first two sections (Relationships and Covenant and Vulnerability) provide the biblical, philosophical basis for forming Christian community in today’s culture. The third section (Youth Messages) is a practical section for youth pastors as we speak into the lives of young people. This section could easily be adapted for use in youth services or small groups. The final section (Being Present) provides practical advice for parents as they attempt to monitor and nurture their children into godly men and women. Having served as a youth pastor, I recognize the role of parents as vital to the personal and spiritual formation in young people. As such, much of the book (in Sections I and II) is directed to parents, occasionally to youth pastors, and sometimes addresses young people directly. Nevertheless, the material in this book will be helpful for everyone. My aim is to challenge, enlighten, and encourage parents about their role in the spiritual formation of their young people. 11


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Youth pastors will find supportive material to talk to parents about MySpace as well as biblical foundations for constructing their own approach to engaging youth culture with the Word of God. My goal is to expose young people to the snares that await to impede their relationships and development into the persons God created them to be.


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Introduction

A

pastor recently started a new church in our area. Part of the process leading up to this church plant was a conversational survey conducted with residents of the community regarding their greatest need. The pastor reported that the recurring response was a desire for real relationships; that people felt alone because they lacked authentic relationships. Immediately this resonated in my own life and with my observations regarding today’s youth and people in general. It made sense to me that a lack of authentic relationships would result in feelings of loneliness. As I began to explore why my teenagers were acting out in self-destructive behaviors, the more it seemed to lead back to a problem of loneliness (and identity). Loneliness is a burgeoning reality not found only on the faces of the homeless, the widow/widower, or the aged. Loneliness plagues our society. Christian radio talk-show host Dawson McAllister said that based on call-ins to his show, the greatest fear of youth today is loneliness.1 The late Mother Teresa said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” Despite our country’s immense resources, in these terms, it appears many of us are starving. In fact, in a recent dissertation titled Understanding and Helping the Lonely, the author noted, “Loneliness is a pervasive phenomenon extending throughout American society and the world.” He supported this with evidence from The World Values Survey (Stack, 1995) which ranks the U.S. “as the fourth loneliest population among industrialized, Western nations.”2 My experience with youth and families seems to coincide with this research. As a student minister I noticed a shift in the way 13


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adolescents, who were succumbing to the social networking deluge, were relating to one another. I also knew I had to be present in their world, to see life from their side, in order to speak to their fears. The more involved and present I was, and the more the online community grew, I was led to address the issue with my youth. I began a series of messages entitled, “God in MySpace.� As I shared the material with a long time friend and veteran student pastor, he encouraged me to disseminate the curriculum. I felt it needed some sort of introduction for parents to lay down the biblical, philosophical foundations for the youth talks. In my attempt to write another talk, I found myself writing a book, this book. This book is about social networking, but more importantly it is about our identity as those made by God, for God. It is my belief that without a solid identity, building real relationships becomes even more difficult and risky than it already is. In a myriad of ways, culture is actually working against itself and propagating feelings of loneliness. God in MySpace is about nurturing a God-centered approach for building real relationships with one another.


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SECTION I

Relationships: Today’s Great Need

15


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CHAPTER 1

Relational Disconnection and Social Networking

M

ySpace is a popular Internet social networking Website that offers people an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, groups, photos, music, and videos internationally. Subtitled “A Place for Friends,” it is a place to connect with people and peers, and it especially draws our youth who flock to this site and similar ones. It declares itself a way to be connected, to stay in touch, and to know what is going on. In light of this type of technology that enables us to make friends with a click of a button, why is loneliness so pervasive among our youth and in our society? MySpace and sites like it have succeeded in networking our world, but our ability to connect relationally has not kept pace. This is especially true in our youth culture today where loneliness, borne of the absence of authentic relationship(s), is epidemic. If today’s great need is real relationship, it makes sense that Internet sites promoting friendships would be very attractive. But do these sites, like MySpace, meet the need? While you ponder those questions, let me give you a deeper MySpace overview because it lays the groundwork for much of this book in addressing key needs of our youth today (more information is also available in Section IV). While MySpace’s platform may differ from other sites, its general framework is that of a social communication network. MySpace is a Website designed to provide a platform for new music from hometown bands and as a forum for meeting new people. While not reserved solely for youth, it is definitely sweeping 17


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through youth culture. The Website attracts over 200,000 new members per day and as of September 2007 there were 200 million accounts.3 Through the site, members maintain a list of friends who are also online and are able to communicate easily with them by leaving private messages, posting public comments, or by distributing general bulletins to every member on their list of friends. MySpace members can form or also join themed or general interest groups from seemingly harmless ones such as cars, movies, alma maters, fan clubs and so on, to edgier ones that may teeter on the borderline of pornography or focus on drug use or even sexual orientation. Using an alias or actual name, individual members, bands, groups, performers, and the like create a profile name that will identify them in some way on their MySpace Webpage. Users surf each other’s profiles and particulars such as the, “About Me,” “Who I’d Like to Meet,” or “Details” section (in which the user provides personal information such as race, religion, and school information), and extend invitations to one another to be added as friends. Upon acceptance of an invitation or request, each party adds the other to their respective friends list. While some members maintain smaller lists, many have hundreds of friends. However, they can highlight up to 24 of their favorite people in a special “Top Friends” section. Within their personal page or profile, members may express individual preferences in almost any area of interest, such as music, movies, or religion. Some even write about what they search for in a relationship. They can add audio or video clips and tell the “world” (albeit the Internet world) anything they want to share about themselves (whether it is true or not) without any emotional connection or ties with their audience. It makes for smooth, seamless interchange—no baggage, no commitment, and best of all, an opportunity to dodge rejection. Site users can visit and assess a profile without the page’s host ever knowing about the visit unless the visitor chooses to contact the host. What they see and what they read onscreen is all the information visitors have to evaluate the person whose profile they are viewing. Visitors get the cold, hard “facts” without ever sharing a conversation with that individual. Both parties are less vulnerable


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this way and spared rejection, but this is a detached process.4 Youth are able to go in and out of relationships with ease, which makes the connections they are forming very fluid. Think back to your youth when you had to transition into a new school filled with strangers. You were the new kid, painfully aware of all your flaws, anxiously searching for a welcoming glance in a vast sea of faces. You did not know where to sit or with whom. You could not click your way out of the classroom or the cafeteria and had to face people and possible rejection head on. I remember being months into my 7th grade year and trying to fit in with a certain crowd. The lunch rules stated we could have only eight people to a table; however, a group of popular students occupied one particular table where everyone wanted to sit. I thought I was right on the verge of being part of this group and desperately wanted to sit at that table, but I still was unsure about my place in the social pecking order. I did not want to be told I could not sit there or worse, “This is saved for so and so.” REJECTION MySpace offers a significant reprieve from the paralyzing fear of rejection. It allows someone to sit in on the conversation at the “table” anonymously. On MySpace, youth do not have to face the paralyzing fear of rejection, and they do not ever have to be truly vulnerable if they do not wish to be. They can flit in and out of involvement with anyone at will. They can visit sites and learn about people secretly and without the knowledge of another. They do not have to venture out of their comfort zones to ask introductory questions, and they can know about others (though not really knowing them) incognito. Sadly, they slip into and out of these relationships easily, and the practice of social networking is extending this attitude of fluid, non-committal relationality throughout our society. For instance, though a member might have hundreds of friends on their friends list, he or she may only “chat” or communicate with a few regularly. It is easy to forego one friend for another as well, and just as easy to cut off communication altogether. We see this relationship fluidness also as people change their top friends list. It is common to see a different name on the top of


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a young person’s list every few weeks. Youth can go where they want, see what they want, converse with whom they want, whenever they want. It is astounding how technologically advanced our world is today! We can communicate with people all over the world in an instant. The world is growing smaller where we can meet new people at the click of a button. This would seem to help form relationships but an inner restlessness for genuine relationships felt and seen in so many tells us otherwise. On MySpace and in our society, everything relationally is in flux because of this freedom from commitment. Never has the world been so connected and yet so disconnected. Not only do the youth feel disconnected, but many adults do too. If the great need is real relationships, it makes sense that youth would flock to this self-proclaimed, “place for friends,” but is MySpace meeting the need? Do fluid connections fill the void for real relationships? If indeed the Internet is a coping mechanism for loneliness and if people are learning to live out fluidness in their relationships,5 what is the fallout of these fluid connections? STRUGGLE

FOR

IDENTITY

The greatest struggle of adolescence is a search for identity, and peer relationships figure prominently in the search, thus the quest for friendships. The questions at this developmental stage are, “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” Social relationships, interaction, and relationship with one’s peers figure prominently in aiding the gradual unpacking of these vital life questions because they help characterize someone as a person. To navigate this developmental stage, youth must settle on answers they can live with to these questions, and when they do, they will chose friends accordingly. Church, family, school—each pass on a value system that they hope young people will adopt. These institutions start with values that they trust will influence and shape the relational decisions of youth, however, youth often start with friends and learn values from them. A cycle is set in motion that perpetuates itself: as young people choose friends, they also learn a common set of values from their friends, which then further dictates the types of people they choose to associate with in the future.


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The struggle for identity has been defined this way, “Adolescents need to embrace values and make commitments.”6 Youth must determine what they stand for and with whom they will stand. Affirmation reinforces this process. The affirmation of one’s values and commitments is important for the perpetuation of those values and commitments. The way a young person views him or herself depends greatly on the way he or she is accepted and loved by parents and peers. Author Jurgen Moltmann writes, “Our experience of ourselves is always woven into a network of social relationships, on which it is dependent.”7 We value ourselves and embrace values based on the way that we experience others, and we learn to make or not make commitments based on the way that we experience relationships with others. In a social system that does not value commitments or experience relationships of commitment8 toward them, youth do not grasp what it means to make and keep commitments. Whom a young person hangs out with is very important to who he is becoming because peers typify certain types of values. For example: John sees his peers around him speaking and acting in certain ways. He could choose to accept as his own or reject those values portrayed before him. Once John makes a decision about what is cool or good or best, he decides that he will be that person and will choose friends who reinforce this common value system. My pastor likes to say, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you where you are going to be in ten years.” Values are anything to which one ascribes worth. It could be materialism, education, or religion but youth (and all people) gravitate toward people with similar values. Whatever the values a young person claims as his or her own, the successful navigation of this developmental stage occurs when a young man or woman can remain committed to his or her values in the midst of opposition. Many adults have not successfully navigated this identity stage in their lives. They have not embraced values or made commitments. This is why some 20 and 30-year-olds cannot commit to anything (a dating relationship, a job, for examples) and why some adults who have made commitments do not keep them. (Note: Divorce rates are a significant indicator of this. I do not mean to suggest,


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though, that anyone should remain in an abusive relationship.) You may know of someone who is still like a child in some ways— perhaps you or your spouse is that big kid! The point is this: fluid connections lead to fluid identity. When we cannot commit to who we are, we cannot truly understand who we are. There is no anchor, no foundation, from which to answer the question, “Where do I belong?” We cannot embrace values because we have not made commitments. Youth are struggling with the question “Who am I?” but the message youth are living by is, “Whatever feels good, do it.” Who they are is whatever they feel at that particular moment, for there is nothing stable to give meaning to their lives. Relationships are in flux because of a lack of personal engagement that allows for a fluctuating identity. Identity is unstable because of eroded commitment, and commitment erodes as everyone is a “rule unto themselves.” As we will examine in the next chapter, in the eyes of most young people there is no greater law to live by than the anchorless, commitment-less life of, “What I want, when I want it.”


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What Did You Just Say and Why Does It Matter? QUESTIONS

FOR

REFLECTION

These are questions you may either want to ask of yourself (if you use the Internet for building relationships) or ask of a young person in your life. 1. Many of us recall awkward situations in our adolescence as we built/build peer relationships. If you have ever used Internet sites for meeting people, do you feel more or less vulnerable about connecting with peers online? Why?

2. Some use social networking on the Internet as a way of coping with loneliness. Think about the ways that you use the Internet. Has this ever been, or is it true of you? If so, what draws you the most? Could this type of social networking be an addiction of sorts that assuages or helps alleviate your loneliness? Even though you may think that you are not hiding (what with providing the personal information in the profile or details areas of the Internet social site that you belong to for all to see) could it be that you’re actually avoiding or detaching yourself from authentic relationships?

3. What makes a relationship or a connection fluid? Give an example.

4. Will making commitments affect our ability to form real (authentic) peer relationships? Why or why not?


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5. What does society teach young people and adults about commitments? What are we teaching our own family about commitments? What commitments have you (and/or your family) made? Are they clear to everyone?


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